Do you consider yourself one of those cultured bacchanalians who treats St. Patrick’s Day as a great big amateur night to be avoided at all costs? Well, we’ve got a noble celebration for you on March 17: Legendary Irish band The Chieftains perform at Jacoby Symphony Hall with the venerable Jacksonville Symphony. However, if you just can’t stomach the thought of green beer or cabbage and corned beef, you’re in luck—The Chieftains will spend the entire weekend in Northeast Florida, appearing at Jacoby Symphony Hall again on March 18 and at St. Augustine Amphitheatre on March 19 for the final performance of their 55th anniversary tour.
Paddy Moloney and company may have started out as a traditional Irish folk band, but their ascendance alongside the folk and rock ’n’ roll movement of the ’60s made them adept at mixing contemporary and modern forms into their music. No, it didn’t always fly well with the purist crowd. But with six Grammys, an Academy Award for Best Soundtrack, and collaborations with Van Morrison, The Rolling Stones, Madonna and Roger Daltrey under their collective belt, whether it soared or not doesn’t faze these Gaelic legends.
Folio Weekly and the 78-year-old Moloney recently discussed Mozart, the Great Wall of China and The Chieftains’ future.
Folio Weekly: The Chieftains will wrap up this U.S. tour St. Patrick’s Day weekend. How have the performances been?
Paddy Moloney: Absolutely brilliantly. I’ve got a great team with me and we’re having a terrific time. We’ve had local dancers and choirs coming out to do some of the music from The Irish in America: Long Journey Home, a film we scored in 1998 about the Irish immigrant experience in the United States throughout the years.
That’s more pertinent than ever these days. Given The Chieftains’ rich 55-year discography, you need three nights!
It’s what to leave out that is the big problem [laughs]—we can’t make the shows too long! Although we do have energetic young musicians with us, like fiddle-player and saxophonist Tara Breene. Her style is fantastic, and she also knows a few steps. We’ve got Alyth McCormack from a Scots-Gaelic community on the west coast of Scotland who does wonderful Puirt à beul, or Scottish mouth music. We’ve been playing a tune called “Foggy Dew” that commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Easter Uprising, which started in 1916 and gained us our freedom. That really brings out the whole feeling of rebellion that took place at that time. We give our shows the full lashing out: Chieftains oldies, material from Santiago, which is dedicated to music from Galicia, a Celtic region in the west of Spain which we were awarded a medal from the king of Spain for. That’s a tremendous showstopper.
That’s the long-lasting beauty of The Chieftains—you mix the modern and the traditional in a way that very few other musical acts anywhere in the world have.
Why, thank you. We’ve also got a piece of music called “Planxty,” which means ‘good health to you’ and which comes from Michael Kelly, one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s best friends—he performed in the 1786 Vienna premier of The Marriage of Figaro with the great maestro himself directing. That’s a bit of fun to do. We have more 17th-century music specifically for the symphony orchestras backing us up that should add great fire to the evening. Overall, it’s a great selection—hopefully you won’t have time to blink!
We hear there might even be dancing?
Oh, yes—we finish with a finale called “Andro,” which we encourage the audience to join us in a snake dance around the hall, led by Cara Butler and our harp-player Triona Marshall. She took the place of Derek Bell when he passed away in 2002. We also have the Pilatzke brothers—Jon is a step dancer and master old-time fiddle-player. So it’s just different styles everywhere.
After 55 years in The Chieftains, do you still have ambitions? Things that maybe you haven’t achieved that you want to?
I do have lots of projects still in the works. We recently finished a documentary on our career that will be airing on PBS on the 23rd of March. We play a clip from that at the beginning of our show—just a little six-minute reminder of where we come from, including footage of John Montague, who gave us the name The Chieftains. I’m putting music to a memorial for him as we speak. It’s just about finding the time to do everything—I’m not getting any younger, you know?
At this point, do you still look back at the spark music gave you as a young child and say, “Yep, I picked the right career path.”
Of course. Music is my whole life. My mother bought me a tin whistle when I was six years old. I taught myself how to play and was on stage by the age of nine. And it goes back even farther than that—it all started with the universal do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do I learned in school. I remember connecting with musicians in China over that, when we were the first Irish band to play on the Great Wall in 1983. That’s why I still use that system that I learned back home in Ireland to make music today—and there’s still music to be made from it.